After the First Book…

Posted by on June 17, 2008 in how to, uncategorized, writing | 20 comments

In the past few days, I’ve spoken with a surprising number of authors who have completed their first books and are starting the long, hard process of shopping it around to agents.  (Yea, authors!)  Every single one of those authors is following the best rule in the Author’s Book: each has started working on his/her next novel.

Alas, some didn’t read the corollary.  Some are writing the second book in the series started by the first book.

Here’s the deal:  A *lot* of first books never, ever sell.  That sucks.  Those books are the literary children of our hearts.  We’ve learned a tremendous amount from them; we’ve raised the characters; we’ve sculpted the plot into a landscape worthy of our greatest dreams (or nightmares, if we write horror.) 

But almost all first books have flaws.  They have pacing issues.  Or they have plot/subplot balancing issues.  Or they have marketability issues.  Some of those flaws are so serious that the first book is destined for your “trunk” – for that storage space that you look into in the privacy of your own room.

If you over-invest in your first book, going on to write a second book in the series, you might end up with two books in that trunk.  Second books in series come with their own set of challenges.  Authors need to provide enough first-book backstory to ease in new readers.  They need to construct a plot that stands on its own, but is linked to the first volume.  They need to raise the stakes enough to keep old readers interested.

Second books in series are hard.

And second books in series will *never* see the light of day, if first books don’t sell.

My advice, when someone asks me?  Don’t write the second book in a series.  Write an all-new first book.  Create a new world, new characters, a new plot.  Harness everything that you learned about writing, and use it in a totally different way.  Show editors, and yourself, that you’re in this for the creative long haul.  Don’t stop trying to sell your first-first book, but don’t tie your entire writing future to it.

My two cents.  Take ’em or leave ’em.

Mindy (who has four trunked novels, each in worlds/situations totally separate from her first sale GLASSWRIGHTS’ APPRENTICE.)


  1. Well said. I’m that *exact* boat right now, shopping Novel #1 about and writing Novel #2. And while N1 was set up with the potential to be a series (but can also stand alone — marketing!!), N2 takes place in a completely different world with different characters, etc.

    I have to admit that part of this decision came from looking ahead towards selling N2 even if N1 languished; but some of it also came from the fact that I was SICK TO DEATH of N1 after I finished it. The characters and I each needed a vacation from one another, which made making the business decision to take N2 in a completely different direction easier.

    And I have to say, I’m having a lot of fun with the new characters and world. There’s a lot to be said for finding a new playground. 🙂

    • Yeah, it’s hard to balance. I get saturated in the worlds I play in, but sometimes it’s really difficult for me to stop procrastinating and move on to the next creation.

      Balance. That’s the key to all of this writing stuff 🙂

  2. I think that’s very good advice. It also gives you the potential for something like what happened to me:

    I sold my “first” novel, URBAN SHAMAN (which was the 5th I’d written). Between writing it and selling it, I wrote HEART OF STONE, which began another series, RIGHT ANGLES TO FAERYLAND (which began a third series), and a third of THE QUEEN’S BASTARD, which began a fourth series.

    Then I went back and started work on THUNDERBIRD FALLS, sequel to URBAN SHAMAN, which I was shopping around when I started writing TF. When I sold US I had a third or so of TF written, so that was pretty good.

    A little more than a year later I also sold the HEART OF STONE trilogy, and a month after that, the QUEEN’S BASTARD books. Couldna done that if I’d written five books in the Walker Papers. So having trunked material (I don’t take “trunked” to mean it can never see the light of day, necessarily, just that this isn’t the right time to revisit it) is always good. It provides a chance to potentially expand what you’re doing, which is exciting. 🙂

    • ::jealous of creativity::

      Actually, our stories are similar, but I haven’t been as successful at you about selling the new works. I wrote GLASSWRIGHTS’ APPRENTICE (actually my fifth completed novel) and started shopping it around. While it was making the rounds, I wrote SEASON OF SACRIFICE. Actually, typing this out now, I’ve realized what today’s blog entry is going to be… 🙂

      In any case – I use “trunked” to mean the truly hidden novels. I don’t have a single word for the novels-that-didn’t-work-before-but-which-I’m-going-to-revisit-some-day. 🙂

  3. There’s also a big difference between the first book written and the first book sold.

    AND, one should hope that before the first book –series or not — starts making the rounds, some serious editing has happened to it, getting rid of most of the flaws so that it CAN sell.

    I’m in the midst of more than one series in preparation now, and I’m using the momentum from the first book to get me into the other books. I’m also making sure what I learn from newer material is applied to older material.

    And I’ve built solid credits with shorter pieces as I’ve written the longer ones.

    • Yeah, but…

      Some first books – series or not – just aren’t sell-able. It’s not a matter of editing. Rather, it’s about the marketability (whether that means the sub-genre chosen, the literary style, whatever…)

      If I wanted to take the time and effort, I could edit three of my trunked novels into sell-ability. The fourth is a moribund sub-genre that would not likely sell, no matter how finely edited (and if it did, it would have a very small readership.)

  4. I think this is probably good advice. (I’m shopping novel #1 and also working, but not very well right now for a variety of reasons, on both novel #2 — sequel to #1 — and novel #3 — completely different world, characters, plot, narrative style, and everything else I could think of. I like to hedge my bets :P)

    I’d say it also depends on how long it takes you to write a first draft: if that number is in the vicinity of four months, you might as well get the rest of the trilogy written just in case, but if it’s more like two years, well …

    • I’d argue that if you can write a draft in four months, that you might as well invest those four months into an independent work more likely to see the marketplace than the second in a series that might not take off. If/when I sold #1, then I’d put other projects on hold to invest the four months into a draft of #2.

      Four months is still four months 🙂

      • True. 🙂

        I am not a four-month writer, by the way — I’m firmly in the more-like-two-years camp.

  5. My first (as yet unsold) novel was fantasy. My next was SF. Now I’m working on getting things together for an unrelated fantasy. I can’t understand writing the sequel to something unsold.

    • I remember doing so when I was much, much younger (like, twelve years ago). My reasons at the time were: 1) That world was the only world I’d ever invented, so it was my world and I was bursting with stories to tell about it, and 2) I was fourteen, and things seemed so much simpler then. I was going to be published by my sixteenth birthday, you see. Heh.

      • I *so* get your “published by sixteenth birthday” comment! Me? I was going to give myself till the end of high school 🙂

    • I *do* understand the inclination to write a sequel – it’s comforting, and it’s familiar. It also validates the decision to write the first novel – the world is tough enough; we need to have absolute faith in ourselves!

      (I *understand* the motivation; I just think we need to resist it! 🙂 )

  6. 2nd in a series

    I’ve taken your advice, only a little late. I’ve written three novels in my series, though I’ve only shopped around the 2nd. It’s gotten some nibbles, but nothing big yet. Now I’ve embarked on a fourth novel, but it is not in the series. It is completely different, not only in characters, but in genre and tone too.

    Even so, I think most series novels really need to be able to stand on their own. (They may be supplemented or enjoyed more deeply by reading other novels in the series, but they should be able to be read without reference to any other novels.) I think if the writer takes this approach, then writing the second novel in an unpublished series may be a way for the novice writer to polish the art in a universe that is wholly understood and already well established in his/her mind. If the first novel never sells, it still might be worthy as warm-up. If the second novel is better for it, and it can stand on its own, then I don’t see the harm in sticking with the series.

    Paul Lamb

    • Re: 2nd in a series

      I agree, that series novels *should* stand on their own. Unfortunately, for most series, especially for most fantasy trilogies, that isn’t the case, and it’s the middle volumes that are by far the most dependent on the others.

      Elizabeth Bear has written some novels that all take place in the same world, but in vastly different time periods. A reader can pick up any one of them and experiment with moving forward or backwards in time. (Obviously, others have done so as well; E Bear’s books are just at the front of my mind right now!)

      It sounds as if you’re working on the same principle, crafting a series where the “first” volume can be read separately from others in the trajectory. That’s rare – but good luck!

  7. Good advice on something I’ve been thinking about. Thanks!

    N1 has been trunked for now, after several rejections, the last of which contained some extremely thoughtful and specific advice for improvements.

    N2 is completely different, and I have a feeling that by the time it’s time to shop that one around, the characters and I won’t be able to stand to *look* at each other for a good long time. So it’s a good thing that

    N3 is completely outlined and completely different.

    Thanks again!

    • (I just have to say that seeing N1, N2, and N3 in your post made me think that we were talking about a sophisticated algebra problem!)

  8. That’s great advice. I feel better for having inadvertently taken it. 😉

    • From a marketing point of view, this advice makes a lot of sense.

      How about from the artistic (or whatever) point of view? Science fiction and fantasy often need a larger canvas to tell a complete story. What do you do then?

      • I think that each novel in a series needs to stand on its own. Even if the total world is vast and the society/science/whatever is intricate, the individual volume needs to have a beginning, middle, and end that stand alone.

        And, in the interest of saving the author’s sanity, s/he should write just one beginning, middle, and end in that vast world, before selling.

        I truly dislike “first in a series” books that contain no wrap-up at all; I feel as if I’ve been tricked. I’m far more inclined to be awe-struck by authors who create a solid first book, and *then* show me additional aspects of their world. (The Temeraire books come to mind as an example – the first book has a complete story, but there are numerous corners of the world to explore for future volumes.)

        (Again, my two cents – take ’em or leave ’em 🙂 )